Consular officers and consular sections used to be much more accessible to the public than they are today. During my first posting in Beirut in 1980 we were separated from the visa applicants by normal glass, like a ticket vendor, and could freely enter and leave the waiting area. Immigrant visa applicants could routinely be brought into the vice consul’s office to be sworn and interviewed; attorneys could–and did–come to the waiting room with their clients, which made for some interesting interactions if the client failed to qualify for visa issuance. The public could ring up the section and ask for a consular officer–and be connected to one, while state-side attorneys could do the same if their clients authorized the cost of a long-distance call.
Things are quite different these days. Consular officers work behind bullet proof glass, and newly designed consular sections have no doors connecting the waiting rooms to the work space, so consular officers can’t even walk into the waiting room to greet people like they used to do. Attorneys in the waiting room, while not officially persona non grata, are barred from accompanying their clients to visa interviews by more and more consular managers. And reaching a consular officer or anyone in the section, for that matter, by phone is just about impossible. The last thirty five years have witnessed the gradual, inexorable construction of a “Great Wall” that isolates consular personnel and ensures that for the most part their work is performed via minimal interaction with the outside world.
There are reasons for the Great Wall. Genuine security concerns and tragic attacks in Beirut, Nairobi, Islamabad, and other posts revealed how vulnerable consular sections, the one part of an embassy compound accessible to the public, can be, leading to redesigns that made it harder to exploit this vulnerability. But these fixes also made it harder for consular personnel to engage with the visa applicants other than through security glass. Rapidly increasing visa workloads made it impossible for consuls to take phone calls throughout the day and still get the visas adjudicated. Efforts to manage this new reality led consular managers first to limit the hours during which people could call in, then to route all calls to dedicated units designed to take phone inquiries, and eventually to the creation of contract, off site call centers where consular officers and staff aren’t even involved in the calls. Most consular sections these days are islands of quiet–the phone rarely rings, and work proceeds uninterrupted by the outside world.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Fewer interruptions may contribute to efficiency. But the gains in consular efficiency have been achieved at a cost. Call centers can’t answer every question; dedicated e mail addresses (which are quickly disappearing by the way, because it is argued that maintaining them eats up too much consular time) are only as helpful as the responder wants them to be, and not every consular manager prioritizes being responsive to the public. By improving the efficiency and safety of consular sections, the builders of the Great Wall also greatly reduced the open access and accountability rightly expected of government officials in an open society. And while Consuls may save some time by not interacting with the public on routine matters, they pass up the opportunity to advise applicants and/or their counsel on more complex situations which can consequently become even more convoluted due to miscommunication solely on paper.
What can be done to make it easier to reach consular officers in real time? Well, for one thing, the State Department could rethink the movement away from dedicated section e mail addresses and towards worldwide call center support, at least when it comes to certain kinds of inquiries and time-sensitive matters. It would also be helpful to move away from straw man arguments about the impact on consular efficiency caused by having to maintain in-house channels of communication for the public or attorneys. Why not give each consular officer a separate public access e mail that he or she can monitor and answer–or not–as they see fit and let them decide how best to balance their work requirements with the need to be accessible? And how disruptive would it really be if there were a way to request–and receive–real time phone access to a consul when circumstances merit?
It doesn’t diminish the benefits of the Great Wall one bit to acknowledge that it also has a detrimental effect on communication and efficiency. Maybe it’s time to make communication as much of a State Department priority as operational efficiency.